The Legacy, and Troubled Genius, of Phil Spector

Growing up, I remember the first time I heard “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys. Mom was a huge fan of their music and one of the first CDs I burned in the personal computer (with help from Dad) had the song in it. Years later, I found out about Pet Sounds and how one big investment risk turned into one of the greatest albums of all time. And about one man’s rise and fall from being one of the best producers in the industry.

Born in 1939, the New York native formed record company Philles in 1961, working with girl group acts like The Crystals (notably Darlene Love). Their recording of “He’s a Rebel” reached the top of the charts. After signing The Ronettes, he produced their hits “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Lead singer Ronnie Bennett, whom he had an affair with, became his wife in 1968.

His success was then extended beyond female talent, when he was credited for producing hits for The Righteous Brothers like “Unchained Melody,” which became a sleeper hit when the movie Ghost was released in in 1990. He then became involved with Ike and Tina Turner and produced “River Deep, Mountain High,” which did not chart as high but still remains a favorite among their catalogue and among artists like Celine Dion, who has covered the song in her live sets.

But the best works by far came with his formation of The Wrecking Crew. While working at Gold Star Studios in California, he perfected a mixing technique involving layering instruments on top of each other and implementing orchestral arrangements like strings, making music more pronounced and complex. This “wall of sound” became a revolution in the way music was recorded and introduced a whole new sound to a younger generation. He used this method on The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” an expensive and risky track completely different from anything they had done at the time. When it came out, the song and it’s album Pet Sounds became recognized as some of the best music to come out in the rock genre and influenced the sound of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Later on, the producer would work with The Beatles (Let It Be) before working with George Harrison (“What Is Life,” “My Sweet Lord”) and John Lennon (“Imagine”) on their solo projects.

However, artists began to drop him from projects when his already publicized erratic behavior grew worse after a serious car accident. Ronnie Spector filed for divorce in 1974 after years of alleged abuse and incidents like guns being pointed at members of The Ramones during studio sessions became publicized in the newspapers. Darlene love commented on their relationship in an interview with Variety, where she said it felt like a terrible marriage.

“…he wanted to control [my] talent,” she said, “if he couldn’t do that, he was going to do everything in his power to keep my talent from shining.”

Although he continued to remain in music, his careercame to a crashing halt in 2003. Actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in his home after being shot. Although Spector alleged she had committed suicide due to a failed acting career, he was arrested and tried in 2007, which ended in a hung jury. In 2009, he was retried and given a life sentence for second-degree murder. He was incarcerated in the California state prison system.

Finally, after a multitude of health issues, he passed away in prison from COVID-19 complications at the age of 81. In addition to three ex-wives and five children, he leaves behind a sordid legacy tarnished by instability and tragic genius that only a few possessed.

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